Visitor finds Mideast tumult `like it never was before'

April 16, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

NACHUM Rachamim kissed his wife and two sons goodbye four weeks ago and went to Jerusalem to see his mother, brothers and sisters. He arrived in the Middle East in time for the worst of the current bloodshed. He went there not to find out who is wrong or right - but who is left.

Rachamim, 49, is the oldest of 13 children, born in Israel but an American citizen living for the past 25 years in Baltimore County. Every day, he reads the papers and watches the cable news. Every day, he telephones his mother in Jerusalem to see if everyone is safe. The other day, newly returned from the Middle East, he came home from synagogue here and recounted what it was like over there.

"Like it never was before," he said. His wife, Helena, sat nearby. "I go back every year, but it was never like this. So many soldiers on the street, and so many police. And I look at my family, trying to keep their worries from me, and I see the effect on them."

His mother is 70. His brothers and sisters have all served in the military, and now there are nephews and friends in the army, and the pressures of each new round of the conflict, and the sirens outside, and the sound of helicopters, and the worry about whose lives have been taken this time, take their increasing toll.

"You worry and worry," said Rachamim, who owns two garages, Star Auto Service in Towson and Tire Star in Cockeysville. "My mother lives in a suburb where helicopters fly over when soldiers are injured. They fly to the Hadassah Hospital. When she hears the helicopters, she knows something is wrong. Or she turns on the television news. Every story, it's the funeral of this one, the funeral of that one.

"Now you sit down to dinner there, and there are neighbors eating at my mother's home because she has enough to eat, and these neighbors don't. In the last year, thousands of Israeli businesses have had to close. How can people live? Some don't have money to buy food, and if they buy food, they don't have money to pay rent. They walk to the market and don't take a car because they don't have the money."

And this is the least of the trouble in the Middle East.

Rachamim's family lives in a suburb of Jerusalem. At night, he said, he could hear explosions in the distance. One day, he "took the liberty" of going into the city. His family said it was too dangerous to go. Rachamim said he would take a taxi, he'd be fine. He waited a half-hour for a taxi. There were none. He took a bus. He was the only passenger.

"It was literally empty," he said. "People who always took the bus are too scared to get on the bus now. I went to the center of the city. At King George and Jaffa Street, there was the restaurant where one of the suicide bombers went. A guard stood in front of it with a machine gun. But there was nobody in the restaurant.

"It was noontime, and there was hardly anybody in the street. It felt like walking in a dream, I swear. You walk along and see shops closed, and restaurants closed. But the signs in the window don't say `Closed.' They say, `Closed for Bombing.' And when you see people, they're carrying weapons now."

Now his wife said, "What he saw over there, he wasn't ready for."

"A friend called my mother's while I was there," he said. "He took me to Gilo, not far from Bethlehem. Palestinians had been shooting in the neighborhood, and the Israelis put concrete walls around the area so drivers could get through. And the government has put bulletproof windows in the homes in the area. How do you raise children in such an environment?"

On Passover, Rachamim's family gathered for the traditional Seder meal. In Netanya that night, a suicide bomber killed 19 Israelis and wounded more than a hundred. Rachamim's family knew none of this until the next morning when they went to synagogue and heard it from others who had gathered to pray.

"The reaction," said Rachamim, "was not fear but anger. You see people at synagogue and they're smiling and happy, but the mood drops like a needle, full to empty. People talked about retaliation. But we retaliate, and they retaliate, and where are we?"

Now he is home - but the telephone connects him to Jerusalem. Whenever the American press reports a new bombing, Rachamim telephones his mother. He is helpless, but wants to hear their voices.

"Yesterday," he said, "I called three times. My family, it's all I have. Money and business mean nothing to me. Family is all."

That is a cry heard from families across the Middle East. But it is barely heard while leaders on both sides stress the terror of the suicide bomber and the power of the retaliatory tank.

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